US gunships land at Jalalabad airport

December 04, 2001

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PESHAWAR, Dec 3: American gunships have landed at Jalalabad airport fuelling speculations in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangrahar province of a ground offensive against Osama bin Laden’s hideout in the Tora Bora mountains, Pakistani investigators and Afghan sources told Dawn.

These sources said that two gunships have flown into Jalalabad airport with US Marines on board for a possible ground action against Osama’s Tora Bora hideout, situated in the foothill of Spinghar mountain range, 56km southwest of Jalalabad. “The action may begin in the next couple of days,” the sources said.

Tora Bora has been the target of intense US bombing for the last few days. Reports reaching here from Jalalabad and confirmed by Afghan sources said that 58 civilians had died because of the bombing since Sunday. “US warplanes continue to pound Tora Bora,” the sources said.

Intense bombing and rising civilian casualties have caused alarm and concern in the new administration ruling Nangrahar province of Afghanistan. A meeting of elders held in Jalalabad on Monday passed a resolution calling upon the US to put an immediate end to the bombing.

US Vice President Dick Cheney said last week Washington suspected the Saudi dissident was hiding in the caves of Tora Bora, a naturally fortified former Mujahideen base built during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Osama, upon returning to Afghanistan in May 1996, had used this place as his first base. Pakistani investigators say Osama had improved the facilities available there and those holed up in there could put up a long resistance. Investigators say that more than 1500 Arab, Pakistani and Taliban fighters retreated to the Tora Bora hideout after the fall of Kabul and other eastern provinces.

Nangarhar’s military commander Haji Mohammad Zaman told Dawn by phone from Jalalabad his forces were also preparing for an onslaught on Tora Bora and might not need US support for the operation. “We have our own programme and we are preparing ourselves for the attack,” he said.

He said he had sent a group of local elders to Tora Bora to ask the non-Afghan and Taliban fighters to surrender by Monday. The deadline has expired and now we are contemplating action.” He declined to say when his forces would storm the fortified base of Osama bin Laden. “We are going in for the military operation.”

While the US continues to hunt for Osama in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, more notably in Tora Bora, Pakistani investigators and Afghan commanders believe there is no evidence to suggest that Osama is there.

One senior Pakistani official quoting credible reports said that Osama was last seen about 12 days ago in Kandahar, Taliban’s last stronghold in southwestern Afghanistan. He said that Taliban reclusive supreme leader Mulla Muhammad Omar and Osama had been seen together. He said that Osama was no longer using his trademark double-cabin pick-up trucks and was now using horses to ride from one place to the other. The official said that Osama could still retreat to in the sparsely-populated southwestern Uruzgan province. “If one reads the man’s psychology, it shows that he would want to draw in American soldiers and put up a grand stand.”

ABU HAFZ MAY BE ALIVE: Pakistani investigators say that contrary to reports Osama’s military commander, Egyptian-born Muhammad Atif alias Abu Hafz, may not be dead. “There is no evidence and no confirmation to suggest that he is dead,” a senior official said.

ARABS ATTEMPTED TO SEEK SHELTER IN TRIBAL AREAS: Official sources said that some Arab militants had attempted to approach Pakistani tribesmen to seek shelter in Khyber Agency soon after the commencement of US military action in Afghanistan early October. These sources said that the Arabs had sent in an emissary to tribesman Rahim alias Kemya Khan in Terah to seek shelter but the request was turned down.

A group of over 70 Arabs had taken shelter with Rahim’s father Gulabat Khan back in 1994 soon after the crackdown by the government against aliens but were forced to flee to neighbouring Afghanistan when the tribal administration engineered an uprising against them.

These sources said that the government had made it plain to the tribal elders that no sanctuary should be provided to any foreigners fleeing Afghanistan. “The tribal elders communicated the same message to the Arabs.”